Ultra-Long Range Rifles and Cartridges
By Chuck Hawks
Rifles and cartridges suitable for shooting medium size big game at ranges much beyond 300 yards are relatively few. Shooters with the experience and ability to take advantage of these rifles and cartridges are even fewer.
Yet, judging by my e-mail, there is an inordinate amount of interest in such rifles and cartridges. The majority of the letters I receive about ultra-long range hunting rifles are not from the tiny minority of shooters with the great field experience and proven ability to make use of such rifles, but rather from beginning and novice shooters and hunters. Evidently the wise old pros know better!
What I call "long range" rifles are exemplified by (but not limited to) medium weight bolt action rifles, usually with 22-24" barrels. A good example of such a rifle would be the ever popular Remington Model 700 BDL. When chambered for the .270 Winchester cartridge the 700 BDL comes with a 22" barrel and has an overall length of 42.5 inches. The catalog weight of this rifle is approximately 7.4 pounds, which means it will weigh about 8.4 pounds (or more) when equipped with a telescopic sight.
All of the trajectory information that follows assumes a rifle with a scope mounted 1.5" over the axis of the bore. Bullet velocities are based on typical catalog figures for factory loaded ammunition whenever possible.
Long range rifles are chambered for an assortment of popular cartridges. The .270 Winchester shooting a 130 grain bullet has long been the standard of comparison for long range rifle cartridges. A .270 with this weight bullet is nearly ideal as a general purpose long range rifle. But the .243 Winchester with 95 grain bullets, 6mm Remington with 95-100 grain bullets, .25-06 with 100 grain bullets, 6.5mm Rem. Mag. with 120 grain bullets, 6.5x68 with 140 grain bullets, .270 WSM with 140-150 grain bullets, 7x64 with 140 grain bullets, .280 Remington with 140 grain bullets, 7mm Rem. SAUM and 7mm Rem. Mag. with 150 grain bullets, .300 Rem. SAUM with 165 grain bullets, .300 WSM and .300 Win. Mag. with 165-180 grain bullets, .300 Wby. Mag. with 200 grain bullets, .300 Ultra Mag. with 200 grain bullets, 8x68S with 170 grain bullets, and 8mm Rem. Mag. with 170-180 grain bullets all have a similar trajectory (assuming bullets with similar ballistic coefficients). These cartridges and loads all offer muzzle velocities of 3000 fps to about 3150 fps. There are other cartridges and loads that have similar trajectories, but those named above are representative of typical long range hunting cartridges.
These cartridges have a trajectory flat enough to allow a point blank range (where the bullet neither rises nor falls more than 3" above or below the line of sight) extending from the muzzle to somewhere around 296-306 yards. Zero a scoped rifle so that the bullet hits about 2.5 high at 100 yards and it will strike about 3" high at 150 yards, roughly 2.3" high at 200 yards, and about 3" low at 300 yards. This will allow solid hits without "holding over" on medium size big game animals (like most North American deer) out to approximately 300 yards or a little farther.
Our standard of comparison, a .270 shooting the 130 grain bullet, has a maximum point blank range (MPBR) of 305 yards according to the Rifle Trajectory Table. The MPBR is the distance at which the bullet falls 3" below the line of sight. Very few hunters that I have met can shoot well enough in the field to take full advantage of that trajectory.
But there is a perceived need on the part of some hunters, no matter how unrealistic, for an even flatter shooting, longer range rifle and cartridge combination. Unfortunately, while there are a few cartridges that can extend that plus or minus 3" point blank range somewhat, it is surprising how little maximum point blank range (MPBR) can be gained without either holding over the target or allowing a mid-range rise which may result in over-shooting at intermediate distances.
A careful perusal of the ammunition manufacturers ballistics tables and the popular reloading manuals reveals that the best of the (at lease moderately well known) ultra-long range cartridges appear to be the .240 Weatherby Magnum (100 grain bullet at 3400 fps), .257 Weatherby Magnum (115-120 grain bullet at 3300-3400 fps), 6.5x68S (120 grain bullet at 3300 fps), .264 Winchester Magnum (120 grain bullet at 3300 fps), .270 Weatherby Magnum (130-140 grain bullets at 3300-3375 fps), 7mm Weatherby Magnum (140-150 grain bullets at 3300 fps), 7mm STW (140 grain bullet at 3325 fps), 7mm Ultra Magnum (140 grain bullet at 3425 fps), .300 WSM and .300 Winchester Magnum (150 grain bullets at 3300 fps), .300 Weatherby Magnum (165 grain bullet at 3350 fps), .300 Remington Ultra Magnum (165 grain bullet at 3350 fps), .30-378 Weatherby Magnum (180 grain bullet at 3450 fps), and 8mm Remington Magnum (150 grain bullet at 3400 fps). As you can see, all of these cartridges launch general purpose hunting weight bullets (for their respective calibers) at 3300-3450 fps.
If you check the Rifle Trajectory Table you will find that the typical trajectory of these ultra-long range magnum cartridges allows a scoped rifle to be zeroed to hit about 2.3" high at 100 yards. From a rifle so zeroed the bullet will hit approximately 3" high at 150 yards, 2.6" high at 200 yards, and about 3" low at 320-330 yards. By going to a big magnum cartridge, and suffering the added recoil, muzzle blast, and expense that entails we have only gained an average of about 20 yards (6.6%) in MPBR over the standard .270 Winchester.
The most over-the-top cartridges among these, using the lightest bullets in their caliber suitable for even the smallest big game animals, can gain a few more yards, but at the cost of their versatility for use on larger game. For instance, the .300 Ultra Magnum with a 150 grain bullet at a MV of 3450 fps has a maximum point blank range (MPBR) of 335 yards. The .257 Weatherby Magnum with a 100 grain bullet at a MV of 3600 fps has a MPBR of 337 yards. The .30-378 Weatherby Magnum with a 165 grain bullet has a MPBR of 342 yards. The .300 Weatherby Magnum with a 150 grain bullet at a MV of 3540 fps has a MPBR of 343 yards.
These are radical, over-bore cartridges shooting the lightest practical bullets, and they average a MPBR of 339.25 yards. This represents an average increase in MPBR of less than 15 yards (4.6%) over the same cartridges shooting heavier bullets of far greater all-around usefulness. By almost any standard that is a poor trade-off.
Compared to the .270 Winchester, with its MPBR of 305 yards with the versatile 130 grain bullet, we have gained an extra 30 to 38 yards of MPBR (a 10% to 12.5% increase). In the case of the .300 Magnums, the price for this modest increase in maximum range is about a 60% to 300% increase in recoil (depending on the specific caliber), a similar increase in muzzle blast and the cost of ammunition, and a decrease in general utility! Seen from this perspective, only the .257 Weatherby makes any kind of sense, as at least its recoil is on a par with the .270 Winchester.
Of course, where I live, a box of .257 Weatherby cartridges retails for almost exactly three times as much as a box of .270 cartridges ($45 compared to $15 at my local discount store as I write these words). I know, because I own a .257 Weatherby rifle and I bought a box of Weatherby factory loads yesterday (120 grain bullets at 3305 fps, a MPBR of 317 yards). This is an excellent general purpose big game load for the caliber, nearly as versatile as the 130 grain .270 load, and I really like my .257 Weatherby rifle. But even I have to wonder if a 12 yard (3.9%) increase in MPBR can justify a 300% higher price for ammunition!
The rifles required to wring the maximum performance from the ultra-long range cartridges are typically fairly heavy rifles with 26" (or longer) barrels. A bolt action Weatherby Mark V Deluxe rifle chambered for the .257, .270, 7mm, or .300 Weatherby Magnum cartridges has a catalog weight of 8.5 pounds. This means that it will weigh about 9.5 pounds with a 3-10x40mm scope (which is, in fact, what my .257 weighs). These rifles come with 26 inch barrels and are approximately 46.6" in length.
It is singularly amazing how relatively little practical hunting range is gained by using an ultra-long range rifle and cartridge (compared to a standard long range rifle and cartridge). To pick up (at best) 38 additional yards of maximum point blank range, a deer hunter has to move from a reasonably handy, medium weight, versatile rifle to a long, heavy, specialized rifle with a huge increase in recoil, muzzle blast, and expense!
Copyright 2008, 2015 by Chuck Hawks. All rights reserved.